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John Frum Movement (Tanna Island, Vanuatu)

Last modified: 2021-04-10 by ian macdonald
Keywords: john frum | white sands | star (green) | stars: 5 (black) | star: 4 points (white) | stars: 4 | circumference (yellow) | canton (blue) | canton (brown) | canton (black) | stripes: 5 |
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The John Frum cult

The religion centering on John Frum arose in the late 1930s. The movement was influenced by existing religious practice in the Sulphur Bay area of Tanna, particularly the worship of Keraperamun, a god associated with Mount Tukosmera. In some versions of the story, a native man named Manehivi, using the alias "John Frum", began appearing among the native people of Tanna dressed in a Western-style coat. Others contend that John Frum was a kava-induced spirit vision, a manifestation of Keraperamun, who promised the dawn of a new age for which the people of Tanna had to reject all aspects of European society. In 1941, followers of John Frum rid themselves of their money in a frenzy of spending, left the missionary churches, schools, villages and plantations, and moved inland to participate in traditional feasts, dances and rituals. European colonial authorities sought to suppress the movement, arresting more than 120 people in the 1940s and 50s.
Olivier Touzeau, 28 March 2021

There has been intensive anthropological research into cargo cults, escapist cults, where the leaders promised their followers that a great bird would carry a world of goods if they followed certain rituals. These cults were in the late 1930's rather isolated. It spread like wildfire when the villagers from a village in Malaita (Solomon Islands), who had fled to the woods, got back to their village to find out the colonial oppressors had left and a huge bird was standing near the village filled with all the goods of the world. It was an American transport plane, which mysteriously had been left by the crew, but the word spread. In Tanna the Americans built a huge town and then the war was over, so they left it to the villagers. It seems that one of the villagers asked an American who they were. The answer, "John from America", which the villagers translated into John Frum. The phenomenon of cargo cults was observed from the Dutch East Indies to French Polynesia, and was alternatively called John Frum movement. A rather universal emblem was the Red Cross, as many goods were from Red Cross relief.
Jarig Bakker
, 24 July 1999

Other reasons are given for the origin of the name "John Frum".
According to

Chief Isaac and other local leaders say that John Frum first appeared one night in the late 1930s, after a group of elders had downed many shells of kava as a prelude to receiving messages from the spirit world. 'He was a white man who spoke our language, but he didn’t tell us then he was an American', says Chief Kahuwya, leader of Yakel village. John Frum told them he had come to rescue them from the missionaries and colonial officials. 'John told us that all Tanna’s people should stop following the white man’s ways', Chief Kahuwya says. 'He said we should throw away their money and clothes, take our children from their schools, stop going to church and go back to living as kastom people. We should drink kava, worship the magic stones and perform our ritual dances.'
Perhaps the chieftains in their kava reveries actually experienced a spontaneous vision of John Frum. Or perhaps the apparition has more practical roots. It’s possible that local leaders conceived of John Frum as a powerful white-skinned ally in the fight against the colonials, who were attempting to crush much of the islanders’ culture and prod them into Christianity. In fact, that view of the origins of the cult gained credence in 1949, when the island administrator, Alexander Rentoul, noting that “frum” is the Tannese pronunciation of “broom,” wrote that the object of the John Frum movement “was to sweep (or broom) the white people off the island of Tanna.”
Whatever the truth, John Frum’s message struck a chord. Villagers on Tanna began throwing their money into the sea and killing their pigs for grand feasts to welcome their new messiah. Colonial authorities eventually struck back, arresting the movement’s leaders—including Chief Isaac’s father, Chief Nikiau. They were shipped to a prison at Port-Vila in 1941, their subsequent years behind bars earning them status as the John Frum movement’s first martyrs.
Olivier Touzeau, 28 March 2021

Chronology of the flags in John Frum rituals

1957: all red flag
1957-1978: no flag
1978: first use of USA flag
after 1978: John Frum movement flag

It should be noted that the flags with red and green stripes are not described in all the books about John Frum movement published before the end of the 1980s.

The French geographer Joël Bonnemaison explains the origins of the red crosses in the 1940s and of the first flag of the movement in 1957 in his books:
1. Tanna, Les hommes lieux, by Joël Bonnemaison. Editions de l’ORSTOM, 1987.
2. La dernière île, by Joël Bonnemaison. Ed. Arléa / ORSTOM, 1987.

Here are some excerpts that I translated:

The freedom of "seditious" worship was accepted by the colonial authorities with the return to Ipeukel of the last prisoner, Nakomaha, in 1957. After 17 years of repression, the banned name of John Frum finally obtained the right to be back on the island. Tanna was yet to experience a final collective "alert": Nakomaha had returned since January 1 when, forty-five days later, on February 15, 1957, red flags were hoisted and waved on the dance floor of Ipeukel. The entire John Frum community on the island, about two thousand people, was present, awaiting John's return. The flags made from red fabrics had been, according to the John Frum leaders, directly given by American soldiers to their friends in Tanna. Government delegates did not intervene. A British Administration report then put it in pictorial terms: "The natives were friendly and did not seek to disturb public order. The new government policy of non-intervention began to bear fruit and to ease the winds which had hitherto been blowing in favor of the leaders of the movement" (John Frum cult, diary of events, p. 11, British delegation).

The two Resident Commissioners themselves went to Sulphur Bay after the ceremony and easily received these red flags which were illegal. Sulphur Bay would then have to wait 19 years -1978- to be able to hoist again the flag, symbol of his identity; and this time, it would be a real American flag.

The religious rite was first manifested by common prayers, morning and evening, with offerings of flowers to the new red crosses planted in the center of the villages. However, this daily prayer soon fell into disuse, and the early John Frum "missionaries" soon gave way to the "visionaries." The other symbolic elements of the ritual, on the other hand, proved to be more vivid, in particular the symbol of the red cross and the rite of the flag. The red cross voluntarily takes up the Christian symbol in order to clearly signify that the followers are not true pagans but are on the side of the “Skul”, better, that they have their “Skul”, that is to say their own church. As for the color red, it is the blood which symbolizes life. It was chosen because of its universal character.

A further explanation was given [to Joël Bonnemaison] by B. Loonow (in White Sands) on the origin of the John Frum red crosses ; Nambas, one of the first leaders of the John Frum movement in the 1940ies in Ipeukel, would also have chosen it for political protection: in his mind, this Christian symbol was to prevent John Frum from suffering further repression from other Christians.

The American flag, and at the beginning the red flag (because local people did not have another one and that this color was the emblem of the movement), is today considered as a symbolic element of the John Frum ritual. More exactly, it represents a metaphor for the mythical and fraternal America from which John comes. The guard associated with it, the "Tanna Army", which each year parades at the foot of the mast - empty until 1978 - is also an element of this metaphor. It is therefore not a warlike gesture, but a symbolic gesture which can be explained by the origin of a movement in which, from the start, the image of the fantastic power of America was associated that of his military ritual. Therefore the feast, celebrated each year on February 15 - anniversary of the end of the repression - represents the Great Day.

February 15, the anniversary of the end of the repression, represents the Great Day for the entire John Frum community: an imposing ceremony then takes place in Ipeukel Square. The groups meet there according to the same mode of organization: they come by different routes and form dance and song companies. At dawn the "parade" takes place, several hundred young people with bamboo rifles dyed red, the letters "USA" painted on their torso, march in military order while a "major" chants and punctuates the march. This parade at the foot of the mast - the “drill” - is the essential moment. Later, in the afternoon, customary or "modern" dances, many mimed sketches make up an uninterrupted show, until the final sharing of the food, delivered by those of Ipeukel to all the allies who have come to dance and parade in honor of the flag.

The John Frum of the west coast have established their own center in Imanaka. Every Saturday evening, one hundred to two hundred people gather there to dance. This center plays, on the west coast, a role similar to that of Ipeukel. It has its own foundation myth. In February 1979, after Ipeukel had hoisted his American flag, Imanaka hoisted its own flag and organized its "drill" in a ceremony virtually identical to that of Ipeukel. The element of originality in this martial atmosphere, once The American flag had been hoisted at Imanaka, was that the "drill" and the customary meal were spent to the sounds of Tyrolean folk songs. A German who had spent two years in White-Grass had in fact left his records and a battery-operated device in the village, and Tyrolean chants played out for a good part of the ceremony.
According to:
Cargo Cults, by Lamont Lindstrom (2018),, the 1957 red flag had been "hoarded from American ammunition dumps".

A photograph of the first raising of the USA flag in 1978 can be seen in Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond, by Lamont Lindstrom, p.84
Olivier Touzeau, 28 March 2021

Representation of flags of the John Frum rituals in Ipeukel

[John Frum Movement (Tanna, Vanuatu)] image by Olivier Touzeau, 28 March 2021

The red flag of 1957, the USA flag, and a flag with red and green stripes are represented on a panel at the headquarters of John Frum Cult in Ipeukel.

See from
Same spot photographed here:

You can see painted:
- the first flag of 1957 (all red), with the comment: 17 years Kalapus (Kalapus means prison in bislama)
- an erroneous USA flag, with 11 stripes and 50 stars
- and a representation of a flag of the John Frum movement: black vertical bar about 2/5 at the hoist charged with a six-pointed white star (with the lines of the two triangles apparent), and 5 stripes (R/V/R/V/R) in the 3/5 in the fly.
I have never seen a fabric flag with this design.
Olivier Touzeau, 28 March 2021

John Frum movement flag, circa 1989

[John Frum Movement (Tanna, Vanuatu)] image by Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

From the film “Antoine Fornelli, roi de Tanna”, by André Waksman, France, 2000, producer: Vision Internationale.
The film can be bought at:
It contains excerpts from the following TV reports:
- Thalassa (FR3 TV channel): Tanna: le Cargo Roi (released jan. 1990)
- Tanna, die unglaubliche Insel "Der König" (documentary by Eugen R. Essig, released on Südwest 3 TV Channel in 1995).

At 26’50’’, images probably from the 1990 "Thalassa" report, filmed in the late 1980s. Black or dark blue canton, 5 white
five-pointed stars (big one in the center of the canton, one little star in each corner), a very tattered flag.
Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

John Frum movement flag, circa 1991 + US yacht ensign

[John Frum Movement (Tanna, Vanuatu)] image by Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

Flags filmed in 1991: at 0’18’’
Together with a flag of the US Navy and an USA flag, you can see a tattered flag with 5 red and green stripes, black or very dark blue canton, five-pointed white stars in each corner and a 5th object in the center (probably a 5th star of the same size).

In the same movie, at 1’37’’, one can see an unidentified flag with a blue canton including a circle of stars. It seems to be in fact a US yacht ensign. A similar scene can be seen on this picture taken by Roger Ressmeyer, whose report in Tanna dates from the same year, 1991:

On an undated movie taken in Sulphur Bay, a tattered flag, similar to the R/V/R/V/R with dark canton (at 0’40’’)
Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

John Frum movement flag, circa 1994, end of the 1990s, and 2004 + US Navy and USA flags

[John Frum Movement (Tanna, Vanuatu)] image by Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

From the film “Antoine Fornelli, roi de Tanna”, by André Waksman, France, 2000, producer: Vision Internationale (see above). Excerpts taken from the documentary by Eugen R. Essig. (Antoine Fornelli explains just before in the movie that he came back to Tanna in 1994 and it was filmed by Swiss TV team).

At 38’30’’, images from 1994 (when Antoine Fornelli came back to Tanna):
dark blue or black canton, five white 4-pointed stars, a bigger on in the center, the stars in the corners rotated.

And in 1995:';actualité/young-men-folding-the-american-flag-which-is-photo-dactualité/174568207?adppopup=true
R/V/R/V/R with dark, maybe black, canton
Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

[John Frum Movement (Tanna, Vanuatu)] image by Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

At 4’47/4’58’’, images probably from the end of the 1990s: same flag, obviously blue canton, 4-pointed stars. Flown together with a faded flag of the US Navy and the American flag, upside down.
Olivier Touzeau
, 29 March 2021

In 2004:
Flag in use in a picture taken in February 2004 at Sulphur Bay, together with the USA flag (the right side up) and a faded US Navy flag: R/V/R/V/R stripes, blue canton with a central white 4-pointed star and 4 white 4-pointed stars rotated in each corner

Sulphur Bay, same flag (tattered) here: No date given for this picture.
Olivier Touzeau
, 29 March 2021

Unidentified flags between 1999 and 2004

[John Frum Movement (Tanna, Vanuatu)] image located by Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

Alors vint John Frum: Une tragédie cultuelle des Mers du Sud, a film by Marc Tabani, shot from 1999 to 2004

At 22'22": USA flag, John Frum movement flag (red and green stripes), dark canton, details unknown

At 26'38", unknown flags in the parade:
- an all green flag
- a white flag, with in a white disk outlined in black a 4-pointed star surrounded by (probably 8) smaller 5-pointed stars, and below a listel with unreadable words and the word "Pacific", and an anchor.

The same white flag could be seen in 2011, in a ceremony with the representative of the so-called House of Tanna, Claude-Philippe 1er (details to come in my message #4/10).;set=pb.37036405716.-2207520000.1404563156.&type=3&theater
Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

Flags after 2005

2005: Flags of Vanuatu, France, USA, aboriginal flag flying together: from

2006: A flag of the Marine Corps and a Confederate battle flag:

2006: Flag of Vanuatu, France, USA, aboriginal flag flying together:

2006: Flags of Switzerland, USA, and Tanna (without the red stripes):

2012: From
Flag of the Marine corps.
Flag of the USA and of Vanuatu.
Abstract from this page:
So on February 15th I hear there is a big celebration. Why February 15th? There was a short pause, another short translation session between the Chief and Videl. “February 15th, 1957 is the day we had a huge celebration in Sulfur Bay. Thousands of villagers from Tanna came to celebrate. Some of our leaders that were imprisoned by the Condominium were released because the Americans came and told them to release our leaders. We were visited by an American ship called the Yankee and the commander told us we should work hard, just like the American people. Only then would we be prosperous. So every February 15th we celebrate the freedom of our leaders and America’s friendship. We march in formation and hoist our flags. We have five flag poles to hoist flags for our celebration. We fly the US Marines flag, the US Navy flag, the Company Flag, the Stars and Stripes, and the Vanuatu flag. We have a huge parade.”

At the John Frum Monument at Sulphur Bay
USA flag, tattered John Frum flag (blue canton, probably the one with 4-pointed star)
And a Tanna flag (with red stripes), probably the model given by the so-called House of Tanna.

A flag of the US Marine Corps can also be seen inside the headquarters:

In the same reports, images of the tribe of the John Frum movement which worships Prince Philip. A folded UK flag can be seen at the headquarter.

”Followers of another cult on Tanna, the Prince Philip Movement, which is based around Yaohnanen village, believe that there is another true messiah - Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. He is worshipped as a divine person and legend has it that the Prince once left the island and traveled to a far away country, where he married a powerful woman. The legend goes on to say that he will return to Tanna, bringing to his 'motherland' all power and wealth of the British crown.”

Olivier Touzeau, 29 March 2021

Australian TV report (1980)

[John Frum Movement (Tanna, Vanuatu)] image by Jaume Ollé, 10 June 1998

In an Australian report in TV around 1980 I saw the John Frum Movement flag: five horizontal stripes of red-green-red-green-red, blue square canton with the green star and yellow ring covering three stripes. A customary flag - John Frum's - with allegiance to the Tanna Kingdom.
Jaume Ollé
, 10 June 1998 and 30 January 1999

I haven' t found any picture mixing the red and green stripes with the Tanna 1974 design (sky blue, green star, yellow circle) but I have not been able to locate the Australian film mentioned by Jaume Ollé. For me, this flag I have not seen in my long researches on this subject and is unconfirmed.
Olivier Touzeau, 28 March 2021

White Sands (Tanna) flag

[White Sands (Tanna, Vanuatu)] image by Thanh-Tâm Lê

Jaume Ollé's flag [vu}jfrum.gif] looks like the flag used today on the island by the villagers of White Sands, but instead of the "tanna" star in the canton, there are 5 black stars on a brown background arranged in saltire, the one in the middle being greater than the others.
Pascal Monney
, 14 June 1998 and 1 February 1999

I haven't found in any source for the flag we present as a John Frum flag in White Sands (brown canton, 5 five-pointed stars).
Olivier Touzeau 28 March 2021

Flag in Flags of Paradise chart

This flag is known to be incorrect, wrongly captioned in Flags of Paradise 1996 chart as "John Frum - Gilbert Islands"

[1940s John Frum Flag, wrongly reported as Gilbert Islands] image by Thanh-Tâm Lê

The Flags of Paradise 1996 chart has a flag of similar striped appearance, but with ca. 3:5 proportion and a large black canton with four 4-pointed "stars" placed in a square pattern. The flag is captioned: John Frum Flag - Gilbert Islands - 1940's.

Who is (was) this John Frum? Tanna and Kiribati are more than 2,000 km apart so I cannot imagine that "John Frum" ruled the two archipelagos. Is (was) he rather a kind of "Oceanian" Marcus Garvey, who would have inspired "liberation movements" throughout the Pacific, his "colours" being used in different areas as flag basis? What do these "4-pointed stars" stand for? They also appear in the flag of the Epi District (Vanuatu). Are they really stars, or wind roses, or something else?
Ivan Sache
, 24 July 1999

According to Ralph Bartlett (Flag Society of Australia secretary), this flag (No 124 on the Flags of Paradise 1996 chart) was sourced from a (partly hidden) colour photograph in a book called Pacifica Myth, Magic and Traditional Wisdom from the South Sea Islands, Angus & Robertson 1993, page 107. John Frum lived on the island of Tanna during World War Two. Ralph accidentally labeled the flag as coming from the Gilbert Islands (nowadays Kiribati) on the chart.
Nozomi Kariyasu
, 28 August 1999

On BBC2 in 'Around the World in 80 Faiths' the John Frum cult is shown where the adherents of John Frum have incorporated the raising of several US flags every morning and their lowering each evening into their rituals; they have actually become sacraments, and every adherent is expected to make his or her way to a particular spot where four flagpoles are positioned. The flags include a contemporary S&S, the far right is the contemporary US Marine Corps Standard, while to the immediate right of the S&S was what appeared to be an olive green flag; the wind had not caught this flag, and I could not make out any details. To the left of the S&S was what appeared to be either the Texas or the North Carolina flag.
Ron Lahav, 3 January 2009

At Flickr,, a photograph titled "John Frum "cargo" cult and their ceremonial flag raising" shows three poles together, flying a S&S, a Swiss cross and above them a light blue flag. A fourth flag, some distance away, is probably unidentifiable.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 2 July 2010

I'm certain that the "fourth flag" is the modern flag of Vanuatu, with red on top and green below. No other flag in that area uses such colors, therefore I'm sure that it is the flag of Vanuatu.
Michal W., 6 July 2011

The most likely candidate for blue flag with charge in yellow ring would be a Tanna flag. Would seem to make sense, for the John Frum movement.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 6 July 2011

The John Frum cargo cult has no ties with Gilbert islands, and is a typically Melanesian ritual. No flag has ever been mentioned in the history of the John Frum cult before 1957. For this kind of flag (5 red and green stripes, dark canton or bar with one or several stars), I haven't found any source before the late 1980s. In fact, all the flags with 5 red and green stripes have come in use between the 1980s and the 1990s, and the only flags linked to the John Frum ritual before 1980 were :
- the red flag in 1957
- the USA flag since 1978
Olivier Touzeau, 28 March 2021

Historical representations

[1940s John Frum Flag, wrongly reported as Gilbert Islands] image by Michal W., 6 July 2011

Based on, a photo taken in 1991 by Roger Ressmeyer on Tanna, a depiction of the 1957 John Frum flag, which is plain red. I can only suspect that the red color was chosen because of the fact that the red cross is the holy symbol of John Frum. Up till this day the adherents of the cult use red as a ceremonial color - by for example painting their bamboo spears red, or using red paint to write "U - S - A" on the chests of people participating in the yearly ceremonial march that takes place on the 15th of February.

[1940s John Frum Flag, wrongly reported as Gilbert Islands] image by Michal W., 6 July 2011

There is also a depiction of an American flag as well as a modern (modern by 1991 standards at least) flag of the movement. The 1991 flag a single white star on a blue background at the hoist, with the same type of red and green stripes seen on other John Frum flags featured above.
Michal W., 6 July 2011

I haven't observed the flag submitted by Michal W, presented as a 1991 flag, and described as "a single white star on a blue background at the hoist". A similar design (with a black vertical bar and a six-pointed star) can be seen represented in Tanna.
Olivier Touzeau, 28 March 2021